With pink popping up all over, and public service announcements everywhere we turn, it would be impossible to forget that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. When this month coincides with a personal experience with cancer, the messages become even more powerful. Mammograms do save lives. Tell a friend, tell a parent, tell a child.
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. October is also the month my mother Audrey was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 70. What happened after that would come in handy one day in ways I never suspected then.
I learned about the disease to help my mother. I learned about her too. Audrey was quite a role model. For example, she convinced her doctor to try a round of chemo after being informed her that she was too old. Although she did not tolerate chemo, she believed that the few infusions helped. Believing that probably helped.
Whatever helped, Audrey ended up living two decades past her diagnosis. During this time, she took care of her husband, John, who had Parkinson’s disease, grew her garden, got to know her grandchildren and learned to negotiate with another health challenge, Alzheimer’s disease. Audrey was good at multitasking.
In her early 80s, my father deceased and Audrey came to live in a nursing home near me. There, she began to enjoy life in a way she had not for many decades: no worries. Alzheimer’s disease can be brutal. In my mother’s case, it was not all bad. Her joie de vivre persisted. Audrey did forget that she had experienced breast cancer, sometimes questioning me about her missing breast. There are worse things to forget.
When Audrey was 87, breast cancer returned. This time, when doctors said that she had lived her life and that treatment would be minimal, I agreed. By now, with my mother’s medical power of attorney, I was making decisions for her in ways she would have made them. She had taught me well.
After a lumpectomy one morning in September, Audrey returned to her nursing home, where she promptly forgot she had undergone surgery. Life went on and then it wore her down. She died seven months later in a room full of sunlight and orchids where a hospice sitter would sometimes sing to her and where I would go for sanctuary. My mother was my home.
I needed sanctuary too. That morning of Audrey's lumpectomy, I arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m., flustered. The day before, I had undergone a biopsy that would reveal in situ
cancer, a simple diagnosis that would lead in a few weeks, to a mastectomy, which in turn would reveal invasive cancer coexisting with the in situ
With Audrey as my role model, working through a cancer diagnosis and treatment would not be so hard. That September morning, though, I wondered how I could keep a cold compress on my incision, tend to my mother, complete paperwork and get to work on time. The self-pitying ended, though, when I found Audrey waiting to be taken into surgery.
My mother looked at me with wise eyes, the eyes of a mother who saw inside her daughter’s soul. For a moment, hers were the eyes of a mother who did not have dementia. Then she hugged me. That hug was the beginning of our last dance, the dance that I call the months I was treated aggressively for breast cancer because I was in my fifties, young, and my mother, not so young, slipped away. Even as she moved out of this life, though, Audrey tended to me as I tended to her.
My mother was resilient. She was also smart. She is the one who, before Alzheimer’s disease robbed her of many faculties, talked me into continuing annual mammograms after I announced that I was going to stop going every year.
“They really do save lives,” Audrey told me. Mothers are usually right.